Is there already an Iranian agreement?
Benjamin Netanyahu's snub of recent talks over Iran's nuclear program, and Barack Obama's retort may have been a choreographed exchange designed to gradually pave the way for a deal with Iran.
Yesterday I wrote here that Benjamin Netanyahu may have miscalculated on Monday when he blamed the international community for giving the Iranians a "freebie" of five more weeks of unfettered nuclear development. But could his snub and Barack Obama's retort have been actually a choreographed exchange designed to gradually pave the way for a deal with Iran?
The Washington Post's David Ignatius seems to think so. In his column today he writes that – "Netanyahu played his expected role in this choreography, criticizing the negotiators for agreeing to another round of talks on May 23 in Baghdad without getting concessions in return" and that Obama's counter-statement was a "perfect rebuff — just scornful enough to keep the Iranians (and the Americans, too) worried that the Israelis might launch a military attack this summer if no real progress is made in the talks."
This would tie in with Barak Ravid's report this morning in Haaretz quoting an American official saying that Netanyahu had been "fully briefed" on Saturday's P5+1 talks with Iran in Istanbul. Carrying on this optimistic scenario, Ignatius also has the eventual framework of the agreement with the Iranians which he claims has already been agreed upon between the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton and Iran's negotiator Saeed Jalili –
Iran would agree to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level and to halt work at an underground facility near Qom built for higher enrichment. Iran would export its stockpile of highly enriched uranium for final processing to 20 percent, for use in medical isotopes.
This may sound like wishful thinking, but it probably reflects accurately the hopes of the senior U.S. State Department diplomats directing the negotiations with Iran. If indeed Iran can be persuaded to agree to such an outcome, in the guise of "confidence-building measures," without actually relinquishing its right to enrich uranium to 20 percent but in practice not doing so, then Netanyahu may have no choice but to go along with it.
A very measured statement today by the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, in which the issue of uranium enrichment was not even mentioned, may also serve as a source for optimism.
But is it realistic?
There are numerous foreseeable potential pitfalls. For a start, verification. Whatever Iran says, Israel and the western powers will be justifiably suspicious of a clandestine enrichment program continuing. For Iran it will be a matter of national pride that the sanctions be lifted before it allows IAEA inspectors in to verify it has stopped enrichment and to collect the 85 kilograms already at 20 percent. But following the complete failure of the U.S.-North Korea nuclear deal, less than two months after it was signed, will the administration be willing to risk another diplomatic humiliation?
And while we're on the North Koreans, even if a deal is reached regarding uranium, what about the other components of the Iranian weapons program? The presence of Iranian scientists at last Friday's failed space rocket launch at Sohae is a signal that they have no plans for now to curtail development of long-range ballistic missiles. Will an enrichment deal be enough to lift sanctions while other projects continue?
And events elsewhere may also intervene. As the Annan plan to restore stability to Syria is collapsing even before the UN observers have deployed, Iran's increasingly frantic efforts to keep its major ally afloat may bring it into direct conflict with some of the P5 members, for example France, which is wading in with a foreign ministers summit on Syria tomorrow. Will Iran be able to deal with the double blow of Bashar Assad's downfall and giving up its nuclear ambitions?